Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Preach the Gospel at All Times...

In the Bluffton Packet, Wed. June 17

You’re probably shocked to hear that despite being a full-time youth minister and very part-time pastor’s corner columnist, I still find myself in need of extra cash. The combination of an iTunes habit and having to replace my car last year after accidentally breaking it (note: when your engine overheats, stop driving. Immediately.) occasionally leaves me… financially challenged. Fortunately, I am multi-talented and when there are no more quarters to be found in the seat cushions, I call a generous local restaurant and beg for a few shifts. Waitressing is a profession I’ve held on the side since I was fourteen. As my father prophesied when I told him I wanted to major in Theology (right up there with art, music, and English in terms of earning potential), “Well, you can already wait tables. So you’ll never starve.”

I’d rather be playing dodgeball or leading a Bible study, but when necessary I’ve always enjoyed waitressing as another outlet for my obnoxious extrovert tendencies. And, although giving directions to Harbor Town and assuring people that alligators, as a rule, do not eat people (unless you’re from Cincinnati) can get old, Hilton Head affords a lot of neat interaction while re-filling sweet tea and delivering burgers. Plus, I went to college in Ohio, so I can usually connect geographically on some level with my guests (“Yay Buckeyes! I agree, this is the year The Browns are gonna make it…”) Serving food is far from glamorous, but it’s fun. However, there’s one aspect that drives me crazy, even more than the usual server annoyances like kids running around under your tray full of hot coffee or scraping gum off the bottom of a table. It’s the fact that every few days when I go to collect the bill or tip off a table, tucked
anonymously in the check holder is a little religious tract, explaining the steps to accepting Christ as my savior and attaining salvation.

You may be surprised to hear this coming from a professional Christian who spends most of her days (as well as many lock-in-filled nights and weekends) trying to convince teens that life’s questions can be answered in Christ. In no way am I saying that sharing the Gospel is a waste of time and high-gloss paper. However, some ways of sharing are more effective than others.

I’d like to know what tract-droppers imagine happens as they pile back into their SUV’s with their doggie bags. Do they fall asleep at night feeling that they’ve successfully followed Christ’s commandment to “Go and make disciples of all nations”? “Yes” they think to themselves. “That brochure we left for that server will mean one more soul saved from eternal damnation!” Do they imagine that I run into the kitchen, tract in hand, exclaiming “Everybody! We’re on a twenty- minute wait, running out of mashed potatoes, expecting an inspection from DHEC any minute and a guest just said we’re out of toilet paper, but I just got a piece of paper that says someone named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago loves me and died for my sins. Let’s all stop and say this prayer together!”. We then all break into a round of “Kumbaya,” hug, and bring Bibles to the Triangle after work that night. This is just not how it works.

In reality, servers take these tracts and either throw them away or shove them into the pockets that contain the Amway and MaryKay promotional materials they’re given as well. This is occasionally accompanied by a few expletives, asking if being a Christian means tipping 8%. As a Christian, this grieves me because my prayer for my co-workers is that they know that Christ is more than a product to be sold like Amway or MaryKay; He is a person madly in love and seeking a relationship with us all.

I realize that the lack of four-color printers at the time of Christ leaves us to wonder whether He would’ve saved time and effort by using tracts, but I think that despite technological differences, we can look at how Christ lived and see that He shared his message through relationships, sitting with tax collectors and prostitutes and conversing with them. Through this people came to understand that truth is more than an idea, it’s a person. Sociologist Rodney Stark set out to investigate how Christianity spread and discovered that it was primarily through personal contact. In The Rise of Christianity, Stark’s extensive research claims that “the primary means of its [Christianity’s] growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the 'good news’.”

Does that mean you can’t share Christ with the person serving you coffee or chicken finger basket? Of course not! But research and the example of Christ himself shows us that this is done best through a relationship-- asking someone’s name, if they have kids, personally inviting them to a program or service at your church. The encounter with your joy will speak much louder than any nameless tract ever will.

Alison Griswold can be left a tract at St. Francis by the Sea where she is the Director of Youth Ministry, or at a Hilton Head Island restaurant.

It May Take A Village, But Only Two Are Permant Residents

originally published in the bluffton packet:

The more parents I meet, the more convinced I am that parenting is the most challenging and unappreciated job in the world. If there are any teens reading this, stop rolling your eyes or they’re going to get stuck that way. Mark my words, someday you’ll thank mom and dad not just for keeping you fed and clothed but also for the rules and the “no’s” and the lectures about “life lessons”. But note that I said you will thank them someday, not now. Only very precocious teens realize what’s best for them now. The rest of you are not going to like what follows so save your angst for your micro-blogging and skip this; it’s a pep-talk for mom and dad.

“Parents: the anti-drug.” There’s a reason that millions of dollars are being invested in this advertising campaign. Studies have shown that teachers, coaches, friends, and even, ahem, youth ministers having a really good hair day are not as influential as are parents in the lives of their teenagers. A speaker I heard said it best when she reminded youth ministers that “Parents are the heroes… you are just a tool in their tool belt.” The best classes, programs, and ministries in the world cannot replace parents in the lives of teens. In the end, parents spend the most time with their kids, set the rules, and enforce consequences. It may take a village, but only two people have established residency. The rest of us are tourists that provide some seasonal support and will eventually move on. Like good tourists, we should do all we can to ensure that the locals are receiving their proper due.

I don’t know when the media began their vendetta against parents, but it’s clearly present and affecting us all. Consider this: as a child, my favorite thing to watch was “The Cosby Show.” Remember how Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable were portrayed as involved parents who dealt with real-world issues but always had the respect of their kids and the final say? They were pretty cool. I would’ve loved to have been BFF’s with Rudy for a chance to hang out with her mom and dad. Contrast this with the popular T.V. show “Family Guy” which portrays parents Peter and Lois as inattentive, self-absorbed, and often modeling immoral and illegal activities. This is a glaring example but not the only one. Network television, MTV, advertisers and even Nickelodeon and Disney are on a mission to make mom and dad look really lame and completely undeserving of honor. This parody, coupled with disrespect from their kids must make parents wonder if all this
grief is really worth it.

As the season of proms, graduations, summer camps and teen nights approach, I encourage parents who know that the aforementioned activities mean not just fun for their children but also a lot of heated conversations about curfews, rules, and standards. I took an informal poll of my peers and we all agreed that we gave our parents the most grief for rules that kept us happy, healthy, and holy. As teenagers, we were mortified when our parents called to check if our friends’ parents would be home when we spent the night, dropped us off at youth group and came in to meet the adults in charge, and made us change when we tried to leave the house wearing a skirt only slightly longer than the belt holding it up (and then the skirt would mysteriously get lost at the dry cleaners… what was up with that?). We all can remember the tearful accusations of, “I can’t believe you don’t trust me to make good choices when I’m out, alone, with a boy four
years older than me who likes me for my mind and wants to show me what a full moon looks like on a deserted beach.” Ten years later we look back and are so grateful that our parents were parents when we needed them to be, despite our declarations that we hated them for ruining our lives.

So as this season of warmer weather, later nights and teens pushing the limits comes round, remember that even Jesus gave Mary and Joseph a few sleepless nights. When Christ reached the age of twelve He disappeared for three days, causing Mary to exclaim, “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety!” (Luke 2:48)- surely words that all moms and dads can relate to. Know that Christ “grew in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Luke 2:52) and while it might not always seem that poetic, it’s parenting, and someday, you will be thanked. It will be later than and never as much as you deserve, but you will be thanked.

Going Makes All the Difference

Originally published in the Bluffton Packet:

It’s that time of year again. It’s getting warmer, school’s almost out and it looks as though the fifth season of the “The Office” will keep me in suspense about whether Jim and Pam will ever tie the knot. But I digress.

Like graduations and white pants, another telltale sign of summer is news of youth groups and individuals taking domestic and international mission trips. You probably know at least one teen or young adult who is packing her Bible, unbreakable water bottle, malaria pills, and wrinkle-resistant knee-length skirts in a backpack and heading to a little-known corner of some foreign country to build a church, dig a well, or lead bilingual sing-alongs for children at a Bible camp.

I used to hear about such trips and think, “Gee, that’s great. Spend hundreds of dollars to travel to another part of the world because no one in your hometown needs help? Why don’t you people do something good locally? There’s plenty of need right here in your own backyard.”

Then I went.

During my senior year of college I took a mission trip to Belize, Central America. A typical Hilton Head girl, my idea of adventure was a Black-Friday shoe sale, not overcrowded, un-air-conditioned classrooms and spiders scurrying across my pillow at night. However, I was graduating and wanted something to mention at job interviews; and though I was broke, a stranger generously donated the trip. Plus, I was living in Ohio and it was March. I was starting to forget what sun looked like. This was a no-brainer.

Packed five across in the back seat of a minivan, Bibles under my feet and three guitars across my lap, careening through villages that had yet to catch up with technology, I felt the direction of my life coming to a screeching halt. Suddenly, all that had been very important to me—friends and family, getting a good job, and sales at The Gap—was overshadowed by the revelation that there were people in the world who didn’t have enough to eat, kids who didn’t have shoes, and schools that could not afford to pay teachers. I had always known this on an intellectual level, but seeing it first hand forced me either to ignore reality or do something about it.

I had been interviewing for teaching jobs in the U.S., weighing different benefits and locations. The principal of the local high school in Belize offered me twelve dollars a week and a bed in a house with a cement floor to teach at a school for students whose behavior or grades were so bad they couldn’t get in anywhere else. I served as a missionary in Belize for two formative years that changed the way I viewed not only developing countries but the U.S. as well. I learned that when you serve others and share Christ with them, what is gained—a greater understanding of oneself and one’s beliefs-- is greater than what is received.

Therefore, service and mission trips are a priority for the teens I work with at my church. This summer we’ll take our third domestic trip to a city where they’ll work with children, paint and do minor repairs for those in need. These are certainly projects that can be done on Hilton Head, but removing teens from the hometown distractions and allowing them to see another part of the U.S. (or world, for ambitious youth ministers) opens the kid’s eyes. Last year, our group worked at a homeless shelter in Tampa, Florida where the teens learned to care for people who can’t afford a place to live or food to eat. Not only did they spend a week in service, they also acquired an interest in serving their own community and have since painted houses, organized food pantries and cared for children locally. The lessons they learned in Tampa have benefited Hilton Head.

2 Kings 5 tells the story of King Naaman, a leper who traveled to Samaria to be healed by the prophet Elisha. Elisha instructed him to bathe in the Jordan River, at which point the King became slightly annoyed and asked why he would travel so far when he had rivers in his hometown which were just as good. God is not limited by geography, but He chose to have Naaman make this journey in order to receive healing. Does one have to go on a mission trip to be a good Christian? Of course not. But we grow when we remove distractions and allow ourselves to learn from a new place, because God uses these long-distance experiences to open our eyes to what has been right here all along.

How'd the Lowcountry Sisters Get Their Habit?

Originally Published in the Bluffton Packet

Imagine twenty teenagers on retreat at Running W Ranch on Route 46 which features, among other fun-makers, pool tables. Sunday morning the teens were finishing breakfast when the morning’s speakers arrived. They bustled in from the torrential downpour outside, gracefully arranging their black veils and brushing the rain off their white habits. Our youth are used to seeing the Sisters at church, so their dress was no surprise. What did shock the teens was to see the sisters pick up the cue sticks and skillfully begin shooting pool like pros. Sister Mary Dominic turned to one astounded teen and kindly said, “Well, we weren’t born sisters.”

They were not. But how did Sister Mary Dominic evolve from pool shark to Consecrated sister? The Lowcountry is blessed to have about a dozen sisters from various orders in our schools and churches, so chances are you’ve seen them had a few questions: What’s with the outfit? How did this happen? Let’s start with the basics. First, I say “sister” instead of “nun” because a nun is a sister who is cloistered (think walls, “Sound of Music” style). They do exist, but you won’t be seeing them in Bluffton or Hilton Head.

How does one decide to be a sister? Last search, it wasn’t coming up on The call to be a sister is actually much deeper than a career. It’s what the Catholic Church calls a “vocation.” God calls us all to be holy through living love by practicing poverty, chastity, and obedience. You might think, “What? Being a Christian means I have to be poor, never have sex and obey? I don’t remember that from vacation Bible school!” For most of us, living poverty, chastity, and obedience means to live simply, practice self-control when it comes to our sexuality and be obedient to God. This is simply phrasing the Ten Commandments in three positive acts instead of ten “thou shall not’s.” The gifts and talents we have enable us to live these three acts in one of three ways: married, single or religious. (Yes, even married people are called to chastity. How? Chastity is not about not having sex, it’s about
following God’s plan for our sexuality. But that’s for another column…). Since everyone is familiar with the single life and most with marriage, let’s skip to religious life.

In the earliest days of the Church there is evidence that many remained unmarried. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord… an unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs; Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit…. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32, 34, 37). Throughout history, different religious communities have been established to respond to the needs of the church and to provide an environment for those who seek to live in “undivided devotion.” For example, St. Dominic established the Dominicans in 1170 for those who felt called to serve the church as teachers. Centuries later, the Dominicans are still teaching, four of them right here in the Lowcountry.

Many close friends have entered religious life and I’ve learned from watching them discern God’s call. They had been in healthy dating relationships (a few had even been engaged), but felt called to follow God in a deeper way. Pope John Paul II explained that grace “never casts nature aside or cancels it out, but rather perfects and enobles it.” My friends saw that based on their nature, talents, and desires God was calling them to live poverty, chastity, and obedience in a more radical way. They chose to remove themselves from the cares of the world that St. Paul mentioned to the Corinthians. They chose not to have a family, to discard their possessions (much of my CD collection consists of convent entry cast-offs), and to be obedient to God through the directions of their community so they can focus solely on the Lord’s affairs. In doing this, they remind us who are still concerned with the world’s affairs that eventually it will
pass away. Their choosing to embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience in this world is a foretaste of heaven where we will not own anything, not “marry nor be given away in marriage” (Matthew 22:30) and will be in perfect obedience to God. The outfits, or habits, a witness to the world that the sisters are focused on heaven, remind us to do the same.